Hey Doug, it was great to see your latest post and thoughts about “found sociology” and about the trap of the documentary approach. I wonder about [this] in my own work, but try not to think about too much—try to keep my head down (or up) and just keep producing.….Over the years I’ve come to realize that I’m attracted to photographing the various ways people are mirrored (or not mirrored) culturally. I’ve never watched any episodes of Dora the Explorer, but when I was growing up there weren’t any Asian cartoon leading characters, so I related to white characters like Jonny Quest and his father Race, rather than his brown exotic sidekick, Hadji.
When I first looked at your photograph, without seeing your comment, I was kind of puzzled. I loved the image, but wasn’t quite sure how to place it or what to make of it. Was it supposed to illustrate some general point about diversity? Or something about middle class life? Then, I thought perhaps it was something about kids and families—because I saw not only a mom and daughter, but also started wondering if the mom was supposed to be pregnant….Once I got past those initial thoughts/impressions, I did notice the Dora blanket, and it definitely did get me thinking about popular culture (as it sounds like was your initial intent), though I was thinking more about kids than race/ethnicity. [When] I finally read your note, it all fell into place. How silly and slow I felt. I mean, I almost always describe my research as being about race and popular culture, and then when you send an image intended to be right in my wheelhouse I almost don’t even notice!
…Let me say one specific thing to further the point and conversation: I think it is very difficult (or can be) to situate actual human beings in the context of our mass media and popular culture visually. Like so much of culture and society, it is always there, permeating our thoughts and existence, but often quite difficult to represent. This image obviously overcomes that problem, and I can’t wait to see the others you’ve been taking with a similar theme and sensibility in mind.
Wing:I think the meanings of a photo are the least clear when I’m actually in the processing of taking it. I was photographing members of Light of Faith and Hope in Jesus Christ, a small storefront church where most, if not all, of the members are Latino. There were a variety of after-the-service-activities that I shot, including a birthday party, a pinata smashing, and basement buffet, before I saw the girl wrapped up in a cartoon character who really resembled her (as much as a real person can look like an oversimplified caricature of a human being).
It’s refreshing to me that you first saw this as just a picture of a family; that you reacted to it perhaps as a father rather than a professional sociologist. Sometimes I worry that reading photos through the prism of culture and identity, as is my wont, may blind a person to everyday humanness.
As we continue to explore the nexus of our respective fields, I wonder how much of what I do focuses on the specific, while sociology is concerned with the general. I am reminded by something Diane Arbus said: “It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.”
First: I think I understand and appreciate what you mean when you say that the meanings of a photograph are the “least clear” when you are actually taking a picture. That point reminds me that so many of the meanings and implications we derive and project onto cultural objects like your photographs are derived not just from the image, but from what each of us brings to those images and the conversations and exchanges that they occasion and prompt. That’s one of the fun, creative aspects of our whole project, in fact.
But I’d also like to point out—wearing my sociology hat—that when you sketch out the context within which a particular shot is taken… it really helps shape and determine how and what I will think about a particular image, what meanings and implications I see in it, impart to it, or develop from it.I am also very interested to hear that you think so much about the relationship between the specific and the general, the particular, and the more universal—and these especially in the context of what you call “everyday humanness.” These are the kind of themes that sociologists think about all the time. One analytic concept this calls to mind is “representation” or “representativeness,” how something unique or particular can and necessarily does stand in for a larger concept, category, or group.
Is this what you mean by “the prism of culture”? On this note, I’m less than certain, actually, about what you mean by your question about whether the “cartoon landscape is catching up to real cultural representation”? …I guess I’m not sure what is “real”, independent from our ability to represent it in some way and make sense of that representation with respect to other, more general categories and experiences…
Not only are the meanings least clear the moment when I press the shutter, I’m not sure if the resulting image ever becomes clarified. In a way, the more meanings that are possible, the more successful the photo is in my mind. I’m often surprised at someone’s interpretation, and each layer of interpretation affects how I look at it.
When I started photography over 35 years ago, I had this kind of pure notion that there shouldn’t be any words or even titles accompanying a photo–the image should stand on its own. But over the years, I’ve added more and more text and context, sometimes I think too much. [It might rob] the viewer of their own interpretation. Perhaps that shift comes from an increasing desire to inform, rather than this idea of photography for photography’s sake.I guess what I mean by “prism of culture” is that I often think about the cultural implications of a photo. This may have to do with the fact that, when I was growing up, there seemed to be few people in popular culture who looked like me—just kung fu characters and Connie Chung. Since I wasn’t “represented”, I became what I saw, and therefore forgot what I looked like.
I was always the only Asian student in my school, from kindergarten until senior high when another Asian kid appeared at Duluth Central High School. I ended up avoiding this kid. It took me a long time to realize—not until I was working on my “Looking for Asian America: An Ethnocentric Tour”—[to start] thinking about why I would avoid someone who looked like me.
In my mind, growing up, I thought I was like everyone else. It’s not like you grow up with a mirror in front of you. Popular culture becomes your mirror. And popular culture is a distorted mirror. …
The World of Disney, I’m sure, had a lot to do in shaping my world and my view of myself. But, as I mentioned, there were few Asian cartoon characters, and I wonder if even the non-human characters such as Bugs Bunny, were made with a white, male, Christian point of view for a white, male, Christian audience. And how long did it take to finally have a major cartoon character like Dora that reflected America’s now-minority-but eventual-majority Latino population?